Venice Bienniale – Preview

This summer – from June through to November 2000 – the new Architecture Biennale will be held in Venice. The Biennale offers an overview of what is current in the world of architecture (and related work in visual art) in the participating countries. The scenario for this year’s event was drawn up by the Italian Massimiliano Fuksas, the flamboyant and – in Italy – not uncontroversial architect. Ahead of the opening, those interested can gain a preview on the Internet, where a rapidly growing exhibition of participants’ work is in the making.

Fuksas has built the forthcoming Biennale around the theme 'Cities': the city as context characterised by permanent crisis. According to Fuksas, architects cannot be permitted to adopt a cynical attitude towards the city – the enormous impact of the construction of cities such as Calcutta (50 million inhabitants) or Mexico City (22 million inhabitants) often has a major impact on what he terms the 'destruction of life'. Fuksas's subtitle for the Biennale is the rather cliché-sounding 'Less Aesthetics, More Ethics'. In early March Fuksas was a guest at the Berlage Institute in Amsterdam (BiA), where he posited the view that the architect must be aware of his position and put his heart into the task. 'It is not enough to be just an architect.' Architects must build for the future; they must create more than just buildings.

Under Fuksas's directorship the Biennale has acquired a somewhat different character to what was customary in previous years. A significant aspect is that this enfant terrible of the Italian architecture scene has opted for what, by Italian standards, is non-bureaucratic and open structure. Via the Biennale web site, Fuksas is inviting architects with an innovative attitude to submit work for the web exhibition. For some time now the Biennale web site has functioned as an online laboratory where the structure and contents of the event have gradually taken shape through the network created. Numerous Dutch submissions are already on display – including a video by MVRDV (Metacity/Datatown) requested by Fuksas himself. Who's next?

A range of technical issues had to be resolved in the facade zone. Since most work is done on computers, high daylight penetration is not really a requirement of the firms in the building, but light levels still have to comply with regulations. The partitions separating the corridor zone and workspaces are therefore completely glazed, and the elongated service block too is made as transparent or translucent as possible. The glazed toilet and kitchen units are therefore no gimmick, but are essential for light penetration. The strip of service spaces is also the only escape route. In the event of a fire, the open glazed zone functions as one huge chimney flue to rapidly channel off smoke. To facilitate this, flexible glass lamellas have been placed at the top and bottom of the suspended, transparent zone.

The invitation to Fuksas to head this year's Biennale was certainly striking. Treated as an outcast for years in Italy; he received no commissions and nothing about him was published. The majority of his work is in France, including the Maison des Arts in Bordeaux. His talk at the BiA was full of anecdotes about the difficult relationship between architect and client. In the past few years, however, his star has risen in Italy. In Rome he is now working on the Centro Congressi Italia, in Venice on the Bienniale. Fuksas does not comment too much on his success as the prodigal son – apart from revealing that suddenly he is invited to do everything, even to present talkshows.

Controversy will always follow Fuksas around. He is working on a Peace Centre in Jaffa, Israel, and at the same time, in consultation with Arafat, he is also designing a 'Stairway to the Sky' in Bethlehem. His open approach to the Biennale will signal a huge change.